China’s Military Buildup Worrisome, Japan’s U.S. Ambassador Says

China’s “spectacularly active” naval posture and “massive” military buildup in Asia are part of a pattern of belligerent behavior toward Japan and other neighbors over maritime disputes, according to Japan’s ambassador to the U.S.

Speaking at a Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington yesterday, Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Kenichiro Sasae described China’s increasingly frequent forays to lodge territorial claims in the resource-rich East and South China Seas as “harassing” and “provocative.”

Japan is urging the Chinese government to “restrain yourself,” said Sasae, who served as deputy foreign minister until last year.

The world’s second- and third-largest economies have protested the presence of each other’s vessels in waters around a disputed East China Sea island chain -- known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China -- in a region rich in oil, natural gas and fish.

The leaders of the two nations have refused to meet for more than a year because of the rival claims, stoking tensions across the region and fears of a possible military miscalculation as China’s military strength and posture grows.

Asked what his country might do to break the deadlock, Sasae said that while Japan is “cautiously trying” to find a way out of the standoff, “we are not going to accommodate” the Chinese position that the islands belong to them.

The Obama administration, which recognizes Japan’s administration of the islands -- while not taking a position on their sovereignty -- has urged the Asian neighbors to resolve their disputes peacefully, avoid provocations and adopt a maritime code of conduct.

China Assertive

China has become increasingly assertive in the South China Sea, encountering opposition from Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, among other nations, as it tries to lock up resources to meet its demands as the world’s largest energy consumer.

U.S. officials have said they are seeking to ensure freedom of navigation and defuse territorial conflicts in the South China Sea, through which half of the world’s commercial cargo moves.

Asked if there is something the U.S. might do to help mediate the conflict, Sasae said yesterday that the dispute is one that China and Japan need to resolve.

The Japanese envoy said China should stop sending its vessels into Japanese waters as a sign of good faith in improving relations. If China would “restrain” itself, “then that would be a signal for us to have a more constructive dialogue,” he said.

Seventh Fleet

In the past year, China has stepped up its incursions into Japanese waters and taken effective control of a land feature near the Philippines. For more than half a century, Japan and the Philippines have relied on the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet to deter aggression in Asia-Pacific region waters.

Japan, a U.S. treaty ally, boosted defense spending for the first time in 11 years to defend its territory. Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said on June 1 that Japan may create a National Security Council and wants to establish a regional body at the “earliest possible timing” to prevent crises over incidents at sea.

Sasae, referring to a debate within his country about increasing Japan’s defense spending, said that view is fueled by an “age of military buildup” in Asia. “We are not changing the policy overnight,” he said, calling discussions about Japan’s defense posture “a more gradual and benign process.”

Natural Resources

While Japan welcomes the economic rise of China and believes its giant neighbor’s boom should be a “win/win situation” for everyone, “there is a concern” about China’s exploitation of natural resources around the world, he said.

Sasae, a former chief envoy to international talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, referred to that country’s proposal on June 16 for high-level talks with the U.S. as part of a familiar pattern of North Korean hostility and brinksmanship -- followed by efforts to revive diplomacy.

North Korea’s history of testing nuclear weapons and missiles and threatening attacks on its neighbors, including Japan, is part of a strategy of “getting attention” and wanting to be accepted as a world power, he said. Japan will never agree to the North becoming a nuclear nation, he said. “We don’t want to see another country like Pakistan” getting a nuclear weapon and declaring itself a nuclear power, he said.

Demonstrate Seriousness

Discussions among the U.S., Japan, South Korea, China, Russia and North Korea over the North’s nuclear program, known as the six-party talks, have been suspended since 2008. The only alternative to war over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is to sit down eventually with North Korean envoys, he said.

Still, North Korea’s leaders must “demonstrate their seriousness,” not make empty promises, before the other nations will return to talks, Sasae said.

Today at the State Department, envoys to the six-party talks from Japan, the U.S. and South Korea will meet for the first time since December 2012. Asked about the talks, State Department officials said yesterday there would be no change in policy and that North Korea must be ready to verifiably end its nuclear program before discussions will resume.

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